When you read a poem, you might be struck by its form on the page, the page etched with careful words, the words teased into line breaks. But when you hear it? Then you meet the poem in a more intimate space.
For years, audiobooks and poetry readings have used the authority of voice to bring poems to life. But there's another, newer platform I want to talk about: the podcast.
A podcast allows you to do things outside of a poem by making the world of poetry itself more approachable. In most poetry podcasts, there's a discussion about the context of the work and the poet that goes beyond just reading a poem out loud.
"We think that poetry is old ... that it's about dead men walking by a pond in the 19th century," says Ydalmi Noriega, of the Poetry Foundation. "Sure, that's one version of poetry, and perhaps that's what we are presented with in classrooms, but poetry is more vast than that and podcasts ... allow you to access that vastness through conversation."
Noriega says hearing a poem right in your ear breaks down some of the barriers that people may feel between them and that same poem on a page. And hearing it discussed on a podcast makes the broader audience aware of what is happening inside the contemporary poetry community.
"This wouldn't work in print," says Daniel Kisslinger, the producer of VS, a podcast presented by the Poetry Foundation. "We're not just talking about a poem — we're asking the poets what's moving them these days, what are some cultural things you've been interacting with, what parts of your world have you been wrestling with either in your work or as a human."
VS is a bi-weekly series hosted by contemporary poets Danez Smith and Franny Choi that invites poets to talk about what's going on in their minds on and off the page. Kisslinger recalls one episode in Season 2, with guest poet Natalie Diaz, where a warmth filled the room at the end of the recorded conversation.
"She was willing to be vulnerable and brave, and while the ideas were beautiful, it was an example of cooperation in dialogue," Kisslinger says. For him, interview podcasts do three things: They provide new information, help us get to know the guest, and help us get to know the hosts. VS, he says, lets listeners get closer to the guests and the hosts as people, and artists, even as they learn more about poetry.
This emphasis on conversation is what makes Kevin Young — poetry editor at The New Yorker and the host of its poetry podcast — believe that poetry and podcasting are suited to each other. "Podcasts connect poetry to a living thing," Young says, "and podcasts are appearing when there is a surge in poetry." He finds that listeners are more in tune to what poets have to say these days, and podcasts — like the one he hosts — really puts a poet's unique perspective on display. And that, says Young, shows you where a poem comes from. It highlights that poem's living qualities beyond the confines of form and page.
In this way, the format of a podcast also serves as a gateway to understanding the format of a poem. "With podcasts, we're looking for air pockets to catch our breath," says Saeed Jones, an award-winning poet and former co-host of AM to DM, a live morning show from Buzzfeed News that often features poets. "And that's what so many people go to poetry for in the first place ... a brief momentary space that contains breath, and the world outside the poem gets a little quiet just for a moment."
Jones himself likes to listen to outgoing U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's podcast The Slowdown on his morning commute. "New York is just starting to wake up at 6:30 am. I'm in a taxi, and I hear her voice ... This one time, she was having these emotional flashbacks about being a parent ... and I remember being really struck about that. I am working on a book about my life and my mother, and in that moment I was not only engaging with the podcast, I was thinking about my own relationship to my mother." Before he hit play on that episode, Jones had no idea that he'd be going on that emotional journey.
A good poetry conversation, he adds, isn't just going to be about line breaks and similes, it's about the broader landscape of ideas. It asks, where did the poem come from? What are the other writers and texts that are on the poet's mind? Does this poem have siblings in the world?
And a good podcast creates a very focused, very intimate space between the listener and whoever is sharing the poem. Cher Vincent is the founder of a podcast collective called Postloudness, and she says she found poetry intimidating at first, but when she heard the first episode of VS, she was hooked.
"I loved their approach to poetry," she says about the show's hosts. "It allows someone like me who didn't read poetry to understand it a bit more, to contribute to and even have criticism for it."
But more importantly for Vincent, as people of color, the hosts hold space in the show to literally amplify voices that aren't usually heard on audio platforms. As a collective, Postloudness specifically features shows produced by people of color, women, and/or queer-identified hosts. VS focuses on similar representation. Now, Postloudness presents VS along with the Poetry Foundation, often providing a recording space and coordinating opportunities for live shows.
"When you think about poetry being analyzed, it's usually white men talking about it," says Vincent. But podcasts bring us the reality of contemporary poetry by showcasing actual voices and accents that don't all sound the same.
By making poetry easy to find and engage with, podcasts are redefining who gets to lead the world of contemporary poetry. They're making room for poets who have always been there to step to the forefront. And a good podcast grounds poetry in this reality — and in the poet's reality — making it seductive to an ever-growing audience.
Jeevika Verma is a poet and writer from India.